Ashton Mae Smith | Candidate Questionnaires - Wake County | Indy Week
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Ashton Mae Smith 

Raleigh City Council - District D

Name as it appears on the ballot: Ashton Mae Smith
Party affiliation, if any: Unaffiliated
Campaign website: AshtonForRaleigh.com
Occupation & employer: Community and Employee Engagement Project Manager, Citrix
Years lived in Raleigh: 24
Please return with a digital photo to jbillman@indyweek.com

1. Given the current direction of Raleigh city government, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific, major changes you will advocate if elected?

Growing up in Raleigh, I’ve had a chance to see first-hand our transition from a sleepy southern town to a bustling city. We’ve made many good decisions that have protected our quality of life while building a dynamic city. But as is true in any story of successful growth, what got us here won’t always be the same as what we need to shape us into a world-class city. I am an advocate for utilizing empirical data to guide decision-making and to demonstrate to citizens the impact of those decisions on their lives. I will also push to bring more people and community stakeholders into the public discussion and to increase our collaboration with Raleigh’s strong academic and creative class. It’s important that all citizens have a voice, not just a vocal minority.

2. If you are a candidate for a district seat, please identity your priorities for improvements in the district if you’re elected. If you are an at-large or mayoral candidate, please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces and how you will address them?

District D is home to some of Raleigh’s greatest opportunities for success: Dix Park, Union Station and the ensuing transit system, and the southern corridor into Downtown.

I am proud to have Raleigh’s new destination park in my district. It is important that we balance a variety of needs and uses in the park, and it is essential that we create great transitions into and out of the park. Dix Park will need to connect and integrate with downtown, Centennial Campus, Pullen Park, the Farmer’s Market, and the adjacent neighborhoods.

Raleigh’s new Union Station with be a catalyst for great change and growth in the Warehouse District and across Raleigh. A new station and a new transit plan give us the opportunity to create a truly remarkable and complete infrastructure for transit. Adding sidewalks and bike lanes, creating safe intersections for bikes and pedestrians, adding bus shelters, and optimizing our bus system are all priorities.

A broader, but incredibly important priority is balanced, sustainable growth in our identified corridors, integrating new density and multi-use developments into existing communities, so we preserve our wonderful neighborhoods and history while still encouraging and planning for the growth we know Raleigh will continue to see.

Another priority is affordable housing. I serve on the board of DHIC because I believe everyone should be able to access safe, quality housing for themselves and their families. We must be careful to make a place for balanced income distribution throughout the city and to not price everyone out of the booming housing market or segregate low income earners from the rest of downtown.

Finally, we must accommodate the needs of residents, visitors, and businesses downtown. Noise, public sidewalk accessibility, dining, bars, retail, businesses, and homes must all be balanced. I believe downtown should be the vibrant space we have been building toward for the last decade. But I also recognize that there are public safety and public health concerns that come with this growth, and it will take collaboration between all stakeholders to create sustainable solutions.

3. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as a member of Council? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to be an effective advocate for them?

This is my first run for public office, but I have a history of leadership and collaborative problem solving. I created my own position at Citrix in which I represent the company with community stakeholders and enhance its employees’ engagement with the larger Raleigh community. This position grew out of my longtime involvement with a host of public issues. I am the current chair of the City of Raleigh Museum Friends board, and I serve on a number of other boards and as a member of several other organizations, including: Urban Land Institute’s Young Leaders Group, the DHIC board, the Greater Raleigh Chamber’s Regional Transportation Alliance, the Chamber’s Edge 5 economic development group, the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, and the Downtown Living Advocates. I am also a former member of the WakeUP Wake County board, I participated in ULI’s Reality Check 2030, and was a founding member and part of the executive leadership team for the NC Delta chapter of Pi Beta Phi.

4. Please give one specific example of something you think City Council has done wrong or that you would have rather done differently in the last year. Also, please tell us the single best thing the city’s done during that span.

I think the city missed an opportunity with the UDO roll-out to effectively inform citizens on the impact of the rezoning. I would have engaged our talent at Wake Tech and NCSU’s College of Design (my alma mater), as well as the private sector, to present the new zoning codes in an interactive, 3D rendering. Zoning maps are complicated, and it’s hard to imagine change in 2D. People could use a visual demonstration of what Raleigh might look like when the UDO is implemented and the city redeveloped.

This year City Council has made some positive strides on affordable housing. The proposed affordable housing plan changes will set the stage to help close the gap in affordable housing supply and demand. In addition, the City agreeing to commit up to $6.8m in gap financing for Washington Terrace is great progress. With this project, we’ll build more affordable housing in one year than in the last five years combined.

5. How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?

I am unaffiliated, and I don’t fit into any neat ideological or partisan boundary. Many in my generation feel the same way, and I think it’s helpful to not approach local governance from a partisan or ideological lens. Socially, I am a strong advocate for equality and civil rights. But I was raised by a small business owner, and began my career in a small, privately owned real estate firm where it was all hands on deck, so economically I’m sensitive to the impacts of decisions on small business owners — they’re the backbone of our economy.

6. The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. If elected, how will your service in office help further that goal?

I want to create an inclusive, accessible city for everyone. We must find ways for everyone who wants to be engaged to find their niche. And we have to listen to all facets of our community, not just the loudest and most frequent voices in the room. Gathering and utilizing data to guide our decisions will ensure we are making the smartest policy choices that serve everyone well.

Please address, in detail, the following major issues in Raleigh:

7. Now that the city has acquired the 306-acre Dorothea Dix Park, what are some specific things you would like to see the city do with it?

Creating a world-class park at Dorthea Dix is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and should come with considerable public input. As I mentioned earlier, it is important that we balance a variety of needs and uses in the park. One only need visit Pullen Park on a pleasant Saturday to see the high demand we have for family-friendly spaces. We also have the opportunity for great running and biking trails, and a chance to foster the kinds of spaces that generate culture and entertainment. The importance of creating great transitions into and out of the park cannot be understated. Dix Park will need to connect and integrate with downtown, Centennial Campus, Pullen Park, the Farmer’s Market, and the adjacent neighborhoods in order to maximize our return on the space and serve the greatest number of people.

8. Between gentrification in historic neighborhoods and expensive rentals downtown, the city has struggled at times with questions of affordable and workforce housing. What concrete steps can or would you take to help ensure that, for instance, hospitality workers can afford to live in Raleigh and especially its urban core? For example, there has been some talk of density bonuses to entice developers to include affordable units in their downtown developments. Do you believe this is a viable idea? Why or why not?

Density bonuses are a challenge in this area because of the costs related to construction and appropriate scale. Generally speaking, once a building reaches seven stories, it shifts from being a wood-frame building to a steel and concrete building, and the cost of construction rises rapidly. This means that unless a building is going to a height that wouldn’t be appropriate for the majority of our neighborhoods, it isn’t cost-effective to build in affordable housing. Other ideas that we can look at are abatements and reductions in fees for developers, or low-interest financing for suitable projects. In any situation, we’re going to need to bring the development community into the conversation so that we can better understand the specifics of the project, the site in question, and needs of the community.

9. Related to affordable housing and affordability in general is viable public transportation. What steps can the city take to improve mass transit throughout the city? Will you actively support the transit referendum that Wake County will likely put to voters next year?

I wholeheartedly support the half-cent sales tax for transit development, and I also support its placement on the ballot. One of my top concerns is transit accessibility. I want to make sure Raleigh’s piece of the Wake Transit effort includes improved sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, and walk signal installations like those on Fayetteville Street. People should be able to travel from doorstep to transit stop and from transit stop to their destination with ease and safety. This is a particular concern for me after I was recently struck by a car making a left turn while crossing the street near my office.

A coherent transit system guides economic development and improves our environment, public health, and overall quality of life. We cannot continue to grow as a city and county without a multimodal system of mass transit to ease congestion and move people to their destinations in a timely, safe, and cost-effective manner.

10. The city came under fire at Council meetings in July for the proposed remapping under the Unified Development Ordinance. It is safe to say there was a lot of uncertainty and distrust. Broadly speaking, how do you think the city should approach issues of density and neighborhood livability? And if the city had it to do over again, what about the UDO remapping do you believe should have been done differently, if anything?

See Question 4.

11. Also on the subject of livability: The issue of regulating sidewalk patios hints at the difficulty this city (like other cities) faces in striking a balance between making its downtown more of a neighborhood and the needs of the businesses, especially those in the hospitality industry, that currently exist. How do you think the city should go about balancing these needs? What does a successful downtown look like to you?

There are certainly some legitimate concerns about access to public sidewalks and ADA compliance, but the way the city handled the passage and implementation of this ordinance alienated not only business owners but their patrons. And enforcement has led to drops in revenues, wages, and tips upwards of 30%, which threatens jobs, businesses, and the tax revenue that we need to support our budget.

A successful downtown is one where everyone feels welcome in a diverse, thriving social, cultural, commercial, and residential space. If we want to diversify the types of businesses we have downtown to include more local retail and healthy, affordable produce vendors — worthy goals — the answer is not to push out existing businesses and the investments they make in our city both economically and culturally.

There is a place for more regulation of public sidewalk spaces that does not threaten people’s livelihoods so drastically. Some bar and restaurant owners came to city council with suggestions that seem to have been ignored in the development of the ordinance. A successful process would bring establishment owners, residents, city council members, city staff, and other stakeholders together to develop a policy that works for everyone to the greatest extent possible. That is a process I would like to conduct when the ordinance is up for review in a few months.

12. Some downtown businesses have worried that the parking-deck fees scheduled to go into effect at the end of the year will adversely impact them. On the other hand, there are obviously costs associated with both building and maintaining garages, and most other cities do charge for their use. What would be your ideal solution?

This is another example of a problem experienced by growing cities. It’s important for us to educate citizens on the cost of “free” parking — parking that we’re paying for through taxes and fees already. A switch to a user-fee system is a natural progression for us as we continue to grow and parking becomes more in demand. I would be open to a transition into paid parking though — first at peak times, and later filling in non-peak times. I would also be open to creative solutions for business owners and their employees — be it validation, a parking pass, or another possibility. Until we provide sufficient and reliable options for employees to take transit into downtown, we need to continue to be sensitive to who is carrying the burden of paid parking.

13. Some recent legislative actions have seemed, to some extent, antagonistic toward the state’s cities: specifically, the repeal of business privilege taxes and the movement toward redistributing sales tax revenue. In your view, how should the city respond to these (potential and actual) revenue losses? Will the city’s property tax rate need to increase? Will services or new initiatives be curtailed? How should the city address its fiscal challenges going forward?

For politicians who came into office pledging a return to smaller government, in many ways, General Assembly leadership have done the opposite. They have put county and city governments in a real bind on many occasions, making it difficult for municipalities to plan their own budgets, provide the services their people expect, and fulfill their own campaign promises not to raise taxes. We should review and assess our mix of taxes and revenues on a regular basis, looking to ensure no one group is carrying too much of the burden. Raising property taxes should be a last resort, but because legislators have restricted privilege licenses and sales taxes, property taxes are in some ways the only option cities have left to raise more revenue. Passing the buck onto local governments to avoid political blame is irresponsible.

Being a Dillon’s Rule state, we are at the mercy of state leaders. But having said that, we should advocate and spur our constituents to advocate for public policies that benefit Raleigh, and fight as hard as we can through every avenue we have available.

14. The city has about 230 employees who earn less than what is generally considered to be a living wage, about $31,000 a year. In your view, is this problematic or something the city should concern itself with?

I favor a living wage. I don’t think we can ask businesses to treat their workers more fairly unless we do as a city. Our hard-working police officers and firefighters and other city employees deserve to be able to live in the city in which they work, and we should honor the importance of their work with the salaries they deserve. Paying city employees higher wages will also reduce our need to develop affordable housing.

15. When is the bike share program going to happen?

At this point, it looks like bike share will happen when private funding is found to support it. With the loss of $7 million in privilege tax revenue, we’ll need to find another source of funding, and in this budget year, that is going to have to be the private sector.

16. What do you believe the role of Citizens Advisory Councils should be? If you are running for a district seat, how closely would you work or have you worked with local CACs?

CACs are Council’s best entree into neighborhood concerns and public opinion, and I will work closely with them as a city council member. I have attended as many CAC meetings as I have been able, and sent someone to those I cannot attend to take notes on my behalf as I strive to understand each neighborhood’s specific needs and concerns.

17. If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.

As a growing city, Raleigh has a number of other challenges I’d like to see us working to solve. Things like homelessness, food deserts and instability, job growth and development, retention of businesses that have been created here, as well as issues of the “sharing” economy, things like short-term rentals of homes and cars, ride-sharing, and the like. 
  • Raleigh City Council - District D

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